In Defense Of Political Parties

When I first became politically active, political parties were far stronger than they are today. (Granted, that observation is much truer of the GOP than the Democrats, for the simple reason that Democrats, a far more diverse assemblage, have traditionally engaged in intra-party fratricide.)

There are a number of reasons for today’s weakened GOP.  A prominent one is the ability of candidates to raise money via the Internet–they no longer have to depend upon the party elders to endorse and direct contributions.

Then there’s gerrymandering.

Thank to the Republicans very skillful and successful national gerrymander in 2010–a redistricting that created a large number of deep-red Congressional districts– a number of candidates who won those districts no longer saw any reason to cooperate with national party figures, or work for the party’s national priorities.. Those Representatives (dubbed the “lunatic caucus” by former Speaker John Boehner) knew that the only real threat to their re-election would come from being primaried by someone even farther to the Right, and that they would pay no price for ignoring the over-arching needs of the national party.

The significant erosion of partisan authority has had some positive aspects, but I want to suggest that the negatives have far outweighed the positives. For one thing, in the world I formerly inhabited, lunatics like Marjorie Taylor Greene and unashamed bigots like Paul Gosar (and so many others) would never have gotten the nod.

I thought about that erosion of partisan authority when I read a post-midterm essay from the Brookings Institution. The author was speculating on the lessons each party should have taken from those surprising results–if they retained the ability to learn and adapt.

Put bluntly, it is difficult for the contemporary parties to learn anything. Both the Democratic and Republican parties are not the coherent institutions they once were, with active local chapters that held meetings and powerful national institutions that held the purse strings. As political scientists have come to describe it, the parties today are “hollowed out”: amorphous ideological groupings populated by media organizations, consultants, issue advocates, and donors.

The hollowing of the parties is very bad for our politics, not least because it makes it hard for parties to learn from electoral experience—mistakes and successes—and shift gears to win more votes. The direction of the contemporary Republican Party is chosen to a meaningful extent by Fox News and other conservative media outlets, and those media are, in turn, driven by their bottom line. Outrage and conspiratorial thinking sell, whether or not they win elections. On the Democratic side, the preoccupation of the donor class with high-profile national races has long left down-ballot races desperately underfunded—even though a vast amount of our politics is determined in states and localities. These are obvious electoral liabilities, but because strategic decisions are not made within a robust party structure, it is very hard for the left or the right to adjust course.

So, neither party is actually well positioned to learn anything from the election, simply because neither party coalition is institutionally strong enough to act as a party. But, given this major limitation, what might the partisan coalitions learn this year?

The author went on to suggest what lessons ought to be learned: certainly, on the Republican side, the need to run higher quality candidates. (I would add to that the need to have a platform, rather than dispensing with policy preferences in favor of running only on a promise to “own the libs.”) The lesson for Democrats is the “need to continue the  vital work of preserving election integrity– shoring up election administration and protecting voting rights.”

Parties should respond to an election by considering how to be the choice of more of the voters. But lessons are hard to learn in politics, and our parties today are exceptionally weak institutions. Under these conditions, the plausible but dangerously wrong lessons of 2022 may well be, for the right, a more palatable authoritarianism, and for the left, a new complacency.

Implicit in this analysis is an even more important lesson: a healthy democracy requires at least two respectable political parties run by grown-ups able to moderate the influence and prominence of the party’s whackos and bigots.

Including the influence and prominence of former Presidents…..


  1. “…a healthy democracy requires at least two respectable political parties run by grown-ups able to moderate the influence and prominence of the party’s whackos and bigots.”

    I agree but would change the term “respectable” to “responsible”; Trump’s White Nationalist MAGA party and its followers include some “respectable” people who bear no responsibility for the actions – or the inaction – of their choice of lawmakers. Do any of those who produce the reasoning and solutions to today’s problems have experience working inside either government body at any level? Many years ago my friend Flo Garvin wrote and recorded a popular song, “I’m On The Outside Lookin’ In”; are any of those experts coming up with the answers “on the inside lookin’ out” at the results of their party affiliation or recognize and accept their share of guilt in the damage being done to millions of Americans who make up the working class today and whose tax payments support those irresponsible, whackos, bigots and uncaring candidates they put and keep in office? Films of Marjorie Taylor Greene following David Hogg who survived the Florida mass school shooting to harass and warn him she was carrying a gun have no meaning to them, nor do any of her outright stupid conversations on any issue. Bigots such as Paul Gosar and never forget Texas court jester Louie Gohmert; neither of whom have anything of value to add to any solution of the problems they harbor.

    What defense can the current Republican party put forward when they support the organizer and leader of the January 6th insurrection when their own lives were in danger along with all who were in the Capital Building that day? The responsibility shown by the Democratic party is, like cleaning house, paying bills and raising our children to be responsible, appears boring but it works if allowed to work by the louder, brighter colored opposition of red hats and more American flags as their background at rallies.

  2. I have been inattentive this week and am catching up.
    Vernon, yesterday your comment on Women . . .
    I am not looking forward to the constant irritation of the old hairshirt repugs want us to put back on.

  3. It is kind of fun watching the GOP morph into a circular firing squad. We’ve watched the Dems do that for years. Now we have the Speaker stepping down from leadership having already developed what appears to be a strong bench, without opposition from either the progressive or the moderate wing of the party. How did that happen?

    Still, we have to contend with a GOP that seems, in Georgia at least, to be falling in line, with Kemp actually campaigning with Walker and only the Lt. Governor still saying Walker is unfit to serve. Walker, who used to be a vampire until he learned that werewolves could kill vampires, has a ton of PAC money flowing in from party resources and an on the ground organization, also from party resources, that believes it can turn out the votes for him, unfit or not.

    It would be really great to see both parties standing against the clearly unfit candidates who, far too often get elected by virtue of the R or the D beside their names.

  4. Paul Gozar in Arizona didn’t have a Dem running for his seat so he got 100% of the vote. Dems can’t win if they don’t have public servants to run in regions heavily red. I know I sound like a broken record but we must get money out of politics. We must rewrite our election processes and include people that are independents so they are welcomed. We must uphold the 14th amendment that insurrectionists cannot hold office. MTG and Boebert should be removed along with Biggs and Gozar.

  5. All Republican gerrymandering has succeeded in doing is creating areas of concentrated lunatics. MTG and Boebert are but two fetid examples. Too bad they give all the GOOD women in politics such a black eye. Green should have been arrested for her intimidation of Hogg. She’s a plain damn fool.

    Money in politics corrupts absolutely. Thank, among other disgusting Republican moves, the Citizens United v. FEC ruling from the Roberts court. EVERY Republican appointee on that court is a disgrace to the law, to the legal profession and the Constitution. Clarence Thomas and his seditious wife are typical of the wretchedness of Republicans. So, how do they keep getting elected to anything?

    Yes, it’s the money from donors; Herschel Walker is only there because the GOP has nobody else with any name or accomplishment recognition. In a way, I feel sorry for him as his mouth continues to heap embarrassment on the GOP AND the fools who will vote for him.

    Yes, it’s the media circus by money-grubbing and feckless executives like the Murdochs. They have created an environment among the vulnerable-to-propaganda citizens where they would rather sell their mothers into slavery than vote for a Democrat. Georgia is the perfect example of that.

    Hollowed out political parties? Not really. The Republicans are filled with idiots and very bad people who lack any civic understanding of governing for the people. The Democrats are filled with ambitious ideologues who insist that their was IS the highway. Good luck with all that.

  6. I can’t disagree with Brooking’s assessment about the lack of leadership within the parties, but a moral compass is one of the essential qualities of a good leader. I cannot imagine anyone venturing into political party leadership with a solid moral compass.

    Is it the fault of the party leaders? Yes.

    They’ve acquiesced the parties over to the oligarchs who control them. Bill Clinton did this for the D party in 1992 with the neoliberal establishment and the Koch’s have been wrestling away the R party from the establishment for forty years or more.

    The number of independent journalists watching the Twitter escapades with Elon Musk at the helm are wondering if his intentions were deliberately to destroy the establishment squakbox. It’s hard to argue with their assessment also.

    Lots of institutions built under the oligarchy are crumbling or in advanced stages of decay.

  7. Gerrymandering has been with us since 1788. Both parties have used gerrymandering for two centuries. It’s not a concept that is new, by any measure.

    What is new is that with computer databases and modeling, gerrymandering is much more a precise science than it was just 20-30 years ago. Partisans can tell with great accuracy how people living in an area are going to vote in the various turnout elections. They are able to craft majority party districts that have enough cushion to weather bad elections. Then in minority party control districts, they pack the opposition vote so it’s wasted and not spread out where it can win most districts.

    Sheila though highlights the bigger problem with gerrymandering, which is also aided by the increase preciseness with which districts can be drawn. – primary candidates who have no concern about possibly losing general elections. Instead, their only competition is within the party which often results in the winning candidate being the one who is the least moderate. This problem with extreme candidates is not just a problem on the Republican side, but also the Democratic. It’s just a bigger problems right now with Republicans. But Democrats…I think your day is probably coming.

  8. Theresa – kudos for pointing out that the largest bloc of eligible voters is “uncommitted” – more than either GOP or DEM. The trick is sorting them – many of them would be highly engaged to vote for candidates who cared about them, their lives and our democracy rather than ideologies/partisanship. The rest might be harder, as they have given up on the system. Notice I said candidates, not an Independent/Forward “party”. Why can’t we vote for people who we believe in? Make candidates get signatures to get on the ballot and limited-size donations to run.

  9. Vernon,

    MTG is in an area of Georgia where you probably couldn’t draw a more competitive district (between the parties) if you wanted.

    As far as Citizens United, Democrats actually outraised the GOP in the dark money made possible by CU this cycle. I’m not sure the Ds will want that opinion overturned now. They’ve figured out how to use it to their advantage.

  10. One of the cultures that easily settles into mature value added businesses is, make whatever you can and marketing will successfully sell it. They fall victim to the harder to understand reality that offering the right product at the right time to the right market makes sales successful, not the lipsticking of the product.

    It appears that the marketing help of the Murdoch’s has led the red party down that rabbit hole.

    We can sell whatever.

  11. There is always the question of whether the human species can solve problems faster than we create them. If so, we survive, if not we become extinct. Perhaps the same is true of political parties. If the Republican Party creates more problems for itself than it can solve, as now seems likely, it will die and be replaced by something more successful. The alternative is for it to evolve into something that can succeed. Either way, our country will be better off. One thing I don’t see happening is Americans succumbing to autocracy. We The People are an unruly lot. We have tasted freedom and are unlikely to give it up.

  12. Paul,

    Georgia’s third is in the middle of southern Appalachia. One of my publishers lives there. Imagine what the competition for Greene’s seat looks like. She won by a lot this year. How does a strongly red, partisan district be “competitive”? Makes no sense.

    Your point about using Citizens United to an advantage doesn’t make any sense either. Most corporations are headed by Republican donors. The stockholders are significantly in the Republican camp also. This cycle doesn’t reflect anything except that the smart people are tired of crazy. Once the Republicans get their heads out of their asses, the corporate money will once again follow them. One cycle these days, is not a trend.

  13. Vernon,

    I have to agree with your last comment here, and you’re absolutely correct! This citizens United fiasco opened the floodgates to every sort of political miscreant and ideology that could be imagined and even non-imagined lol!

    Sort of like what happened when Elon Musk bought Twitter and now they shut that doggone thing down because of so many shenaniganists, at least we can make that a word, who love the wild wild west and anarchy! Citizens United is exactly the same.

    Every single gerrymandered district in this country should be ripped apart. There should be a simple grid system, it doesn’t matter the population within that grid system, but there should be a fair boundary system that will not exceed a certain amount of individuals in a population. Rural grids will be larger, heavily populated grids will be smaller. That way, everything is fair to those in particular, City population centers and rural country regions. Maybe 50 to 100,000 voters per grid square. Each grid square would be divided up into its own smaller grid of precincts for easier voting and tabulation. I mean it’s not rocket science! There should be a national voter registration card, and if that card has been used once and scanned into the system, it could not be used again in that same election. And you could not vote unless you have that card! That card could be just like your Medicare card attached to your name and social security number. It would/could have a QR code on it. Voters who have died during the year, that QR code would be put in the deceased list so if it cropped up during voting, that could be concerned fraud and investigated. All of this stuff is already in place, through Medicare and social security! It just needs to be adapted. That way, the things could run much smoother and voting would be fair!

    The cards would be issued to every individual born in the United States just like a social security number. But Alas, it will never happen. How can you cheat and steal in a very fair system with a lot of eyes on it?

  14. I like “responsible, ” and would add reasonable, as in using reason to find solutions, rather than
    the hyperbolic garbage the GOPIGGIES spew.
    But the above is me engaging in pipe dreams. The GOPIGGIES will say anything, and do anything,
    like support a sad case like Walker, for the sake of power, which is all they are interested in.
    Someone recently wrote that by ’24, the greater public may have learned the lesson that the GOPIGGIES
    are not, at all interested in governing…after 2 years of chasing Hunter Biden, at the public’s expense.
    Faux “News” has already paved the way for that, as well as pushing other hollow propaganda.

  15. I’ll stick with George Washington, who warned against political parties.

    Sometimes we don’t realized how constricted our choices of what to think have become. Maybe democracy isn’t best for this modern world.

    And yes, Twitter is doomed. And possibly Tesla.

  16. Big fixes – unlikely to happen: end partisan gerrymandering, make all primaries “open”. Would move the needle toward the positive.

  17. A note on the demise of Political Party strength from the inside.

    In the bad old days, we had machines. In the days of Chicago Mayor Daley “the papa”, if your garbage wasn’t picked up, you called the Ward Chair, not the city. Then on election day, you returned the favor. It was also very corrupt, so we threw it out.

    We move to presidential primaries; it weakens the state parties.

    Speaking as a Democrat, in Indianapolis, we used to have “it is not slating” choices of people to support in the primary elections. That meant money, and other assistance from the party. That is gone and with it, another use of the party structure.

    Also, the Ward Chairs helped recruit the poll workers (each party would recommend workers) and push the Precinct Committee people to hand out literature at the polls.

    With our new voting center structure, which is much better for voters, there are no more Ward Chairs. The new party structure is to be determined, but probably will be weaker than before.

    Then, some states have move to ranked voting. This will be another blow to party strength. Will it matter? I don’t know. Growing up in Detroit, all municipal elections were “non-partisan” and aside from the “bedsheet” ballots (that describes their size), it seemed to work.
    Note on bedsheets – in one election, the primary had 126 people running for City Council. Only 18 would go on to compete in the general election for the 9 seats.



    The Republicans (today), at their best, have a Youngkin, who sounds mellow, but supports FAR RIGHT policies.
    The Democrats, with AOC and “independent” Bernie, sound radical, but are proposing policies that are just an obvious expansion of the FDR New Deal.

    The Weathermen and SDS were never welcomed into the Democratic Party; White nationalist are now the base of the GOP.

    A recent study from the Pew Research Center compared the Ideological shift in both parties in the House and the Senate between the 92nd Congress (’71-’72) and the 117th (’21-’22) on a zero to 1 scale – Results:
    House Dems moved 0.07 to the left
    House GOP moved 0.25 to the right
    Senate Dems moved 0.06 to the left
    Senate GOP moved 0.28 to the right

    Of course, we used to discuss the “center right” and “center left” with the idea that the center was in between. Today’s definition of the “center” is to the right side of what was once called “center right”.

    Remember, every time you say “both sides”, you are legitimizing White Nationalists.

    Oh, and Sheila – the GOP used to have a very broad base with the Goldwaters and the Rockefellers (Nelson), although I sometimes think the NY GOP lived in its own world. Most GOP, in “the day”, were center right.

  18. Ormand. “Maybe democracy isn’t best for this modern world.” What would you suggest instead? Attacking what we have without being able to offer anything better is what the Republican Party has been doing for the last few decades. It doesn’t seem to be working out so well for us.

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